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Alpine travels in Armenia (part one)

Kit Strange
13 June 2011
Blog team: 
See some of the wonderful plants found by Kit Strange from Kew's Alpine team, as she travelled around Armenia to see spring bulbs in their native habitat.

Armenia is a wonderful place to travel to look for alpines. My particular aim was to see spring bulbs, with an emphasis on irises, especially the 'juno' irises and Oncocyclus irises (known as 'onco' irises). Armenia has four different types of onco iris, which grow from rhizomes and have amazing, showy flowers, so the hunt was on to find them all. The country is very mountainous, with most places 700 meters or more above sea level. There are amazing geological features all around, which makes for great plant hunting because you find lots of different habitats in a small area, with different plants to match, all crammed in!


The amazing geology of the Armenian mountains


We went to find iris lycotis (also known as I. iberica subsp. lycotis) on our first day. Travelling south from the capital Yerevan, where the countryside is quite flat, we started to gain altitude and then came to the site of the irises. Growing in Acantholimon scrub, these gorgeous flowers just dotted the landscape like black hankies.


Flowers of iris lycotis dotted the hillsides

The second place we found an onco iris was on the following day, as we walked up a gorge that had a large fish reservoir running alongside the road. There, sharing a very interesting habitat with lots of other bulbs like Leopoldia caucasica and Ornithogalum sigmoideum, we found Iris paradoxa, growing in an area that in early spring, would have been a stream running off the mountain. Just next to the wet habitat where we found the iris, there was a south facing slope which was as dry as a desert. This area also supported a range of different plants.


Iris paradoxa 

Driving further south again, and the weather feeling warmer still, we pulled up by a promising looking south-facing hillside, to see if we could spot some nice plants. This habitat had some shrubby trees and lots of annuals in the grass. On quite a steep slope we spotted our third onco, Iris lineolata (I. acutiloba subsp. lineolata). Many of the clumps were quite large, with many flowers. What a beautiful sight! I could tell that lots of animals had been grazing here by the amount of droppings all around - nice food for the irises!


Iris lineolata 

We saw our last onco when we returned to the north again, and had some trips out from Yerevan. In the hills around Yerevan, if you are lucky, you may spot a lovely onco called Iris elegantissima (or I. iberica subsp. elegantissima). This was again growing in long grass with lots of annuals and pretty grasses. Sometimes in the shade of trees, sometimes out in the open. There were fewer flowers but they are large, with white standards (the upright petals) and black beards on the lower petals (falls). These spectacular flowers can be seen from far away.


Iris elegantissima 

We were also interested in seeing Iris caucasica, which is a juno Iris. The juno irises grow from a bulb with fleshy roots attached, the leaves are more like a small leek than an iris and the standards (usually the upright petals) of the flower often point downwards and are much smaller than the falls. This group is one of Kew's National Plant Collections and they are grown in the Alpine Nursery. We spotted I. caucasica in quite a few places. The one thing that was very interesting about this plant was the variation in habitats that we saw it growing in. They ranged from sopping wet hillsides in muddy clay, to Artemisia scrub, in almost desert conditions.


Iris caucasica on a wet Armenian hillside 

It is a beautiful bright yellow flower but on first opening it’s almost green. A truly wonderful plant - even when you have to fight rainstorms to see it!

- Kit -


5 July 2011
Dear Kit! Very interesting report, but I would like to note two things. 1. In Armenia we have not 4 but 6 Iris species from Oncocyclus section - you forget about Iris iberica and Iris grossheimii, which you have not seen. 2. On the first photo in your report the most interesting thing is not geology but plant - Gypsophila aretioides. Best wishes George
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28 June 2011
WOW Kit! They are amazing!
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21 June 2011
Brilliant report Kit! Stunning plants in an equally stunning landscape!
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